Saturday, February 13, 2010

Of Opposites, Continua and Love

Opposites, sometimes, are not really what they purport to be. We take the opposite of X to be Y but in reality X and Y form a continuum. The thing that is really in sharp contrast to that continuum turns out to be Z, which stands orthogonally to the duality of X and Y. If that's too much math for a Saturday night (especially on the eve of Valentine's Day), let me make my point through a simple example: black and white might be understood to be opposites, with shades of gray forming the continuum between one extreme and another, but it is colour that really distinguishes itself from the black-gray-white continuum. We find that this applies in other cases as well.

We take atheism to be the opposite of religiosity / faith (in God), but even atheism involves belief in something -- it is a committed position at one end of a continuum defined around theism. Atheists are not sceptics, they are believers: they're convinced that there is no God. Theirs is an assertion of non-existence, not a challenging of existence. Agnostics on the other hand keep their minds and their options open. They do not take any specific position on the question of existence of God. Some might choose to adopt a 'don't know / don't care' attitude, but others, who do care, know that they will never know for sure, since they forever live in doubt. These are people who can never abandon reason to take the 'leap of faith', and, paradoxical though it may sound, may not even commit to being sceptics or rationalists. Such is the nature of doubt, that in its quintessence it turns on itself ipso facto. The presence of doubt is the absence of faith. It is the asking, challenging, will-not-accept-as-given nature of doubt that causes it to disable belief and faith. Doubters are never sure: they live in a world of uncertainty and will always be suspicious of anyone with strong convictions about anything.

We take hate to be the opposite of love, but both love and hate exist on the same emotional plane. They form a continuum of consummate passion at the extremes, that tends to result in behaviour that is generally viewed as irrational and/or unpredictable. Economics, on the contrary, studies the rational and predictable behaviour of participants in free markets. It deals with needs and wants and demand and supply and, assuming rational actors, predicts the behaviour of markets under various circumstances. It presupposes a clinically dispassionate (if not cold-bloodedly detached) approach to exchanging surpluses for deficits in order to fulfill needs or wants. This is the very antithesis of love. When you love, you don't track levels of demand and supply to arrive at a pricing strategy. You don't try to gauge which one of you needs the other more and then go on to determine where your negotiating leverage might come from. You don't think "What's in it for me?" and you don't expect stuff in return. Whether it is your child, your parent, your sibling, your partner, your lover, your friend, your country, your community, your club, your god, your cause, your car, your pet iguana -- in love, you give out of the sheer joy of giving. Whether your love god is Eros, Philia, Storge or Agape, you so revel in loving a particular person/ place/ animal/ thing, that you are scarcely conscious of your own needs and you don't care how much of your self and your resources you're giving away. Supply is seemingly immeasurable, perhaps infinite, even though Demand may at best be marginal if not altogether non-existent. You don't think of the consequences of that giving. You don't think of where it puts you vis-a-vis the loved one, in the context of the political dynamics of the need for emotional fulfillment and the kind of power-play that it quite often involves. What really stands in stark contrast to love, therefore, is detachment. Not indifference, but detachment of a certain kind: the kind that enables a political assessment of the economics of need. This is something to think about over this Valentine's Day weekend, as we celebrate love.

Just as the continuum of theism-atheism is to doubt, so is the continuum of morality-immorality to amorality. Just as the continuum of love-hate is to dispassion, so is the continuum of charity-cupidity to self-interest. Those who want to save the world must rise above all of these continua -- above the polemics of climate change evangelism versus denial, above the arguments of religious fanatics and materialistic consumerists, above the debates between altruistic social workers and avaricious profiteers. Saving the world needs serious work. It needs an open and questioning mind that remains free from the predilections of moral/ religious beliefs and passionate/ missionary zeal. However, freedom from belief should not mean complacent agnosticism, but the relentless search for knowledge without biases. Similarly, freedom from passion should not lead to apathy or indifference but should foster sensitivity towards the right kind of concern: a concern for ourselves and the world we live in, and the future of our children and our children's children and the world we bequeath to them. Perhaps this needs a fifth kind of love god to symbolize it, that the Greeks didn't think of.

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